Life of Pirecommended viewing

Believe it, or not
Ang Lee
Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall, Adil Hussain
The Setup: 
Young man has transformative experience trapped on life raft with tiger.

I was pretty cool on this movie, although I always suspected it would be visually beautiful, it always seemed a little sappy and of vague, feel-good spirituality. I had read the book back in the day, but don't recall much about it except generally liking it. But then it was the night of my company's holiday party, and I had a few hours to kill after work and pre-party, and this was playing at the right time. To my surprise, I quite liked it, I cried, I was moved, and I've been telling all my friends to run out and see it in the theater in 3D while they can.

And by the way... he's an example of a movie I liked, but by the time I got to the end of writing this review, and the process of thinking through it, came to really love.

We open with a survey of exotic animals in a zoo in Pondicherry, India, which starts hammering at your cynical resistance immediately. Then we meet Pi in middle age, settled into a life in Montreal. He is hosting a journalist who has been referred to him, saying Pi has a story that "will make him believe in God." The majority of the movie is a flashback as that story is being told. After an introduction that explains how he got his name, and that he grew up at that zoo we saw, he goes through a period of youthful interest--and belief--in several different religions. He is a convert to Catholicism, then Hinduism. He comes to know Christ, then Allah. His father tells him that believing in everything is the same as believing in nothing. Do yourself a favor and don't get too wrapped up in what this movie is trying to "say," and just take it in and let it settle out later.

One day he becomes curious about the zoo's tiger, which is named Richard Parker through another quirky coincidence. He tries to feed the tiger from his hand, stopped just in time by his horrified father. His father tells him to remember that these are wild animals, and are not, and will never be, his friends. His father then shows him the tiger eating a goat, close up, so he can see the dangers of anthropomorphization. Soon his family has to sell the zoo and move to Canada. So they end up on a cargo ship with all the animals. This whole section before he gets onto that boat with the tiger may take longer than you expect.

Pi wakes and goes on deck during a bad storm. While he's there, the ship starts sinking, and he is unable to go back for his family. He is thrown into a lifeboat, which a zebra also jumps into, and it falls into the raging sea. One of the first striking visuals has Pi floating underwater as the illuminated ship goes down not far away. He is unable to keep Richard Parker the tiger from climbing aboard, as well as a hyena and an orangutan. Soon enough the animals have killed each other and it's just Pi and the tiger. He has constructed a small raft tied to the lifeboat, letting him float nearby while RP gets the run of the boat. The lifeboat comes equipped with cans of water and food and a survival guide, which I could buy. What I could NOT buy was the constant presence of sharks that quite politely never, ever attack.

So in here is the majority of the film, Pi and Richard Parker alone on the boat for weeks, which includes several beautiful and sublime visuals which are reason enough to see the movie. Repeat: if you went to this for the visuals alone, you would be amply rewarded and see some quite wonderful things, and I think it is pretty much crucial to see it in 3D. And you have a smart director who knows how to create beautiful and evocative images, so there's nothing wrong with wanting to see this just for the retina rub.

That said, I'm going to skip most of them so you can discover for yourself, and I'm also going to skip the majority of the important incidents. But the crucial thing that MAKES the film is that they do not anthropomorphize Richard Parker. Like, at all, ever. He starts a vicious wild animal, and he stays a vicious wild animal and... I think we're starting to get to the point of the film. The movie starts to be about projections of consciousness onto something that is unknowable, the belief in a connection with something when that connection may be entirely in your head--and you'll never be able to know--and struggling to a relationship with something that is unchangeable. So put that way... all statements that could apply to one's relationship to religion, no?

I will tell you the one shot that electrified me and is my most potent memory of the movie: At a certain point, the tiger gets so hungry it leaps from the boat after a fish. It then finds it cannot get back in, and the once-fearsome predator is now clumsy and holding on for dear life. What's more, Pi now has a chance to be rid of him. So Pi leans over the side and looks down, and the shot that blew me away is simply the tiger looking back up at him, right into his eyes. That frisson that the movie constantly plays with--is there a connection, or understanding? Or is it nothing?--just really sparked for me at that moment.

The other thing that allows the movie to succeed is that you never have the sense that you're looking at a CGI tiger, even as you know that you're looking at a CGI tiger. What else? I think the tiger is named Richard Parker so we can't just go the other extreme and say this is just some animal; we have to face it as a fully conscious other being with its own will to survive. Toward the end there is a whole other story, after some people find the story with the tiger too hard to believe, and there's a whole other tangent about which story we find easier to believe--which I suspect is also related to religion, i.e. which stories, and why, we find easier to believe. But frankly, after the whole deal in the boat, I was just not ready to go into a whole other story, and wasn't paying attention as closely.

So it's worth seeing just for the visuals. As for the religion, and even the pantheism, I really didn't mind, and it didn't strike me as mamby-pamby "spiritual," because the whole thing is about a struggle with something you will never understand, and never get any proof of, putting the burden on the believer to come to an understanding within his or herself, and face that ultimately one's belief is completely within oneself. It has nothing, that is to say, with TRUTH. Or if it does, there is no way for you to know it, so you had better be pretty secure with your belief. Thought of that way, this movie is not touchy-freely on the religious front at all, but actually pretty hardcore and rigorous.

Should you watch it: 

I would, and you'd better run while its still showing in 3D.